European Union governments have reached an agreement in principle to impose sanctions on the Syrian central bank this month as part of new measures intended to force President Bashar al-Assad out of power, a senior EU diplomat said on Wednesday.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the diplomat said details of the new sanctions were still being worked out but the EU's 27 capitals were behind the push, which should be formally approved by February 27.
Obviously, details are crucial. But (EU) member states agree on the principle, the diplomat said.
It is still a matter of discussion to what extent we can take such a measure without damaging overall trade, because it is not the intention to halt trade completely.
The EU was likely to move quickly in adopting the sanctions despite such concerns, he said, amid growing acknowledgement in Europe that it is difficult to completely avoid hampering civilian trade through sanctions.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told parliament on Wednesday: We are going to strengthen the sanctions, notably those that weigh on the Syrian central bank.
The senior EU diplomat said a European ban on trading with the Syrian government in phosphates, diamonds, gold and other precious metals was being planned. European countries buy some 40 percent of Syrian phosphate exports.
Phosphates are one of the most important natural resources for Syria, he said. Suspending these imports would have obvious serious economic repercussions. I don't think member states are reluctant to move towards such a measure.
In preparing sanctions, EU governments have aimed in recent months to ensure measures such as a ban on central bank activity do not harm the country's civilian population. Concerns over such an impact have in the past slowed the process of preparing sanctions in the EU, where decisions require unanimity.
Such considerations were taken into account when the EU considered its sanctions on Iran. Evidence has suggested in recent days that a Western effort to punish the Tehran government over its nuclear programme - which the West says aims to produce weapons - is damaging imports of food to Iran.
If you start dealing with financial transactions, as would be the case with sanctions against the central bank, this will have consequences on the everyday economy, the diplomat said.
There are pros and cons (of sanctions) and you need to find a balance.
The new sanctions, which are expected to be approved by EU foreign ministers at their next meeting, would follow several previous rounds targeting Assad's government. In September, EU governments agreed to ban imports of Syrian crude.
Several European governments have said they want to tighten sanctions since Saturday, when Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have supported an Arab call for Assad to give up powers.
The Dutch government is in favour of sharpening and broadening the sanction package with regard to Syria due to the terrible situation over there, Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said on Tuesday during a visit to Prague.
The Dutch government for its part will propose to give active support, as far as possible, to the opponents of the Assad regime.
(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Jana Mlcochova in Prague)